Surreal Encounters in Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man’

IT TOOK ME UNTIL 2021, on perhaps my 40th time through the book, to give this passage the attention it deserves. Opening my tattered copy of “Invisible Man,” the same one I carried with me up those manor house steps more than half my life ago, my notes appear as palimpsest: layers of thinking and rethinking, circles and underlines, question marks and exclamation points written in a riot of pencil and ink. But I left these pages in the book blank, whether out of puzzlement or neglect. Reading them today, I realize that I now see myself in Ellison more than in his protagonist.

In these pages Ellison understands — I think I do, too — something that his protagonist does not: that these men are exercising their tragicomic awareness of life, a capacity to contain chaos and not to fall victim to nihilism. Their laughter is necessary equipment for living while Black in America, something the narrator will have to write his memoir to learn — something that Ellison himself had to learn. In a long-labored-upon essay titled “An Extravagance of Laughter,” published in “Going to the Territory,” Ellison recalls his own experience confronting Jim Crow racism as a college student in Alabama during the 1930s. “My problem,” he writes, “was that I couldn’t completely dismiss such experiences with laughter. I brooded and tried to make sense of it beyond that provided by our ancestral wisdom.”

“Invisible Man” demands to be read, then, not solely as an indictment of white supremacy’s obliterating gaze, but as a tall tale that dilates our frame of reality to entertain us, and by entertaining us perhaps to save us. During a 1955 interview with The Paris Review, Ellison responded with exasperation at his interviewers’ self-serious line of questioning about his novel. “Look,” he finally asks, “didn’t you find the book at all funny?” When questioned by those same interviewers about whether his novel would still be read in 20 years, Ellison was dubious. “It’s not an important novel … many of the immediate issues are rapidly fading away.”

Behind this humility is a remarkable claim. Ellison believed — as someone who grew up in segregation perhaps he had to believe — that the conditions his novel exposes (racial discrimination, the erasure of Black identity, the failings of American democracy) might soon improve to the point that the book would no longer resonate. Almost 70 years after his novel’s publication and nearly 30 years after his death, we now know what Ellison could not: that many of the conditions he described have not only persisted but propagated. This fact, along with Ellison’s timeless talent, is why the novel endures. Its power lies in how it confronts racism and white supremacy with a realism that dilates to contain the surreal nature of American life. It lies in its blues-toned understanding of how people endure and even make beauty out of brutal experience by, as Ellison elsewhere describes it, choosing “to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.” This is the challenge that “Invisible Man” sets out. And it is this which frightens me: Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, it speaks for us?

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